Champaign Can End its Housing Discrimination

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Activists have kept the issue of housing discrimination alive at council meetings

As previously reported in the Public i, housing discrimination in Champaign is a chronic issue. Following on the “tough on crime era,” since 1994 Champaign has allowed landlords to reject tenant lease applications based on their conviction record—in excess of federal policy. Consequently, formerly incarcerated people have not and do not have equal housing opportunities, and this increases the risk of recidivism. The housing inequity’s impact on recidivism was specifically acknowledged by At-Large City Councilmember Matthew Gladney on June 25, 2019:

“Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that every person who serves their sentence and gets out of prison is completely reformed and is never going to reoffend. I’m not pollyanna. But I also don’t think that we should erect roadblocks to their potential ability to reform. I think that, you know, there’s been studies on this, being homeless or unstably housed or living in a high-crime neighborhood all heighten someone’s risk of reoffending.”

The purpose of the quotes throughout this piece is to acknowledge what members of the Champaign City Council already know about the issue. This quote was in response to pressure from the Fair Housing Campaign, which in 2019 was composed of faith-based, nonprofit, and grassroots formations including the Champaign-Urbana Democratic Socialists of America Housing Working Group. Together, member organizations of the Fair Housing Campaign petitioned to repeal this discriminatory housing policy (Sect 17-4.5 of Champaign’s municipal code). However, only three city councilmembers voted for the repeal at the time, and the vote failed. Instead, the 2019 Fair Housing Campaign achieved the first amendment in 25 years to reduce the duration of discrimination allowed.

The reform caused the Fair Housing Campaign to in effect cease operation—it last sent an email to member organizations in August, 2020. The pressure to repeal has consequently been diffused by the reform, and this is not the fault nor lone responsibility of the Fair Housing Campaign. Nonetheless, the injustices that Champaign city councilmembers stood against years ago are the same injustices endured by Champaign residents today. On August 4, 2020, District 2 Councilmember Alicia Beck all but committed to seeing the discriminatory policy fully repealed:

“I just wanted to say that I am glad to see that this is coming before us for a reduction to two years. I do plan to vote for this, although I ultimately am hoping for a further reduction and ultimately an elimination of this so that there will be no ability to terminate according to criminal convictions.”

Despite past reporting in 2019 on Champaign’s housing discrimination, awareness of this issue is still lacking. For instance, after a public comment by C-U DSA Co-Chair Allan Max Axelrod on April 5, a District 2 resident in attendance exclaimed that he did not know that housing discrimination was allowed in Champaign until then, and was disturbed. It is a frequent quandary of leadership that one can make repeated statements on an issue and awareness can still be insufficient.

In contrast to 2019, the Champaign City Council, with the 2021 election of Councilmembers Davion Williams of District 1 and Michael Foellmer of District 4, now has the five votes needed to end this discriminatory housing policy. Public comments to the Champaign Council since February, 2022 have pointed this out. As of August 22, 2022, not one of those five city councilmembers have used their council comments to address this issue—one that three of them spoke so fervently and urgently on in 2019. Immediately after the 2019 repeal vote failed, on June 25, At-Large Councilmember Will Kyles committed to voting for repeal the next time it was called to a vote:

“It’s no secret, I was one of the individuals who signed for the repeal and would still vote for the repeal.”

With five councilmembers in support, repealing the discriminatory housing policy can be added to the agenda at the Council before the 2023 municipal election. The concern is that after more than a year with this five-vote block, no action or acknowledgement is publicly evident. Yet two of those five votes, namely Councilmembers Gladney and Kyles, are up for election. Should either of those candidates lose, this five-vote majority could turn into a four-vote minority.

This discriminatory housing policy, due to systemic overpolicing of Black and brown communities, is racist in its impact. Indeed, at the time of the first repeal vote, the housing discriminatory policy was explicitly identified by Councilmember Beck on June 25, 2019 as racist:

“I believe it is a racist and discriminatory policy on the books.”

Councilmember Beck was not alone on the Council in 2019 in this observation. The delays, regardless of intention, of the Council have perpetuated systemic racism. Councilmember Beck in particular instructed community groups to challenge her, and ostensibly her colleagues, on the matter of race and systemic racism:

“I don’t deserve any empathy because ‘oh my gosh it is hard to talk about race’—yeah it should be hard to talk about race because I have participated willingly in the system for a very long time to continue to perpetuate racial disparities and I need to own up to that. And I need to say that I participate in this system and I need to do something to make it a better system because I’ve been given that power, and if I’ve been given that power then I should use it wisely.”

We, the Housing Working Group of the Champaign-Urbana Democratic Socialists of America, call on the Champaign City Council to repeal this racist discriminatory housing policy. Should the Champaign City Council not do so, we see cause to start another iteration of the Fair Housing Campaign, and are prepared to do so alone if necessary. Organizations that are interested and willing to struggle together to end this 28-year-old racist discriminatory policy in Champaign can contact us on the Champaign-Urbana DSA Facebook page and Twitter account (@ChambanaDSA).

The Housing Working Group of the Champaign-Urbana Democratic Socialists of America was formed in 2019 and is purposed with organizing for housing equality and housing security.

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